Israeli ex-president Shimon Peres dies

Shimon Peres, a former Israeli president and prime minister, was a deeply controversial figure in the Arab World for his role in the formation of Israel and its policies against Palestinians, but was revered inside the Jewish state and praised by western leaders.

Shimon Peres, who died on Wednesday, with the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in Gaza on October 13, 1998 file photo. Reuters
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JERUSALEM // Shimon Peres, a former Israeli president and prime minister, whose life story mirrored that of the Jewish state, died early on Wednesday. He was 93.

Peres won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his role in negotiating the Oslo accords, which envisioned an independent Palestinian state.

News of Peres’ death was met with an outpouring of tributes from western leaders, who praised him as a statesman. In the Arab World and particularly the Palestinians, Peres was a deeply controversial figure.

While Peres received some praise in the region for his role in a now defunct peace process, he will also be remembered for his hawkish early years when he played a leading role in the formation of the Israeli state on Palestinian land and the ensuing series of conflicts with Arab countries.

He oversaw a war in Lebanon while he was prime minister in 1996 in which dozens of civilians were killed in an Israeli artillery strike. Peres spearheaded the development of Israel’s secret nuclear programme, cementing the state’s military dominance in the region.

Perhaps most unforgivable for Palestinians, was that he allowed settlement construction to continue on illegally occupied Palestinian land during his years in leadership positions.

In Israel, Peres was seen as the elder statesman of Israeli politics, one of the country’s most admired leaders and the last surviving link to its founding fathers.

He suffered a debilitating stroke on September 13 and had remained in hospital since then.

His son, Chemi, announced his death outside the hospital on Wednesday morning.

“Our father’s legacy has always been to look to tomorrow,” he said. “We were privileged to be part of his private family, but today we sense that the entire nation of Israel and the global community share this great loss.”

Barack Obama described Peres as a man who represented “the essence of Israel itself”.

“There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves. My friend Shimon was one of those people,” he said.

In a seven-decade political career, Peres filled nearly every position in Israeli public life and led the country through some of its defining moments, from creating its nuclear arsenal in the 1950s, to disentangling its troops from Lebanon and rescuing its economy from triple-digit inflation in the 1980s, to guiding a sceptical nation into peace talks with the Palestinians in the 1990s.

Shimon Perski was born on August 2, 1923, in Vishneva, then part of Poland. He moved to pre-state Palestine in 1934 with his immediate family. His grandfather and other relatives stayed behind and were killed in the Holocaust. Rising quickly through Labor Party ranks, he became a top aide and protégé to Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion.

Peres led the defence ministry in his 20s and spearheaded the development of Israel’s secret nuclear programme, which remains outside of international oversight.

He was first elected to parliament in 1959 and later held every major Cabinet post — including defence, finance and foreign affairs — and served three brief stints as prime minister. His key role in the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord earned him a Nobel Peace Prize and status as Israel’s then most recognisable figure abroad.

And yet, for much of his political career he could not parlay his international prestige into success in Israeli politics, where he was branded by many as both a utopian dreamer and political schemer. He suffered a string of electoral defeats: competing in five general elections seeking the prime minister’s spot, he lost four and tied one.

He finally secured the public adoration that had long eluded him when he was chosen by parliament to a seven-year term as Israel’s ceremonial president in 2007, taking the role of elder statesman.

Peres was celebrated by doves and vilified by hawks for advocating Israeli compromises for peace even before he negotiated the first interim accord with the Palestinians in 1993 that set into motion a partition plan that gave them limited self-rule. That was followed by a peace accord with Jordan.

But after a fateful six-month period in 1995-96 that included prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings and Peres’ own election loss to the more conservative Benjamin Netanyahu, the prospects for peace began to evaporate.

Relegated to the political wilderness, he created his non-governmental Peres Center for Peace that raised funds for cooperation and development projects involving Israel, the Palestinians and Arab nations. He returned to it at age 91 when he completed his term as president.

Officials said that Peres’ body would lie in state at the Knesset, or parliament, on Thursday. His funeral was set for Friday at Mount Herzl, the national cemetery in Jerusalem.

Israel’s foreign ministry said Mr Obama, the Clintons, Britain’s Prince Charles and French President Francois Hollande were among those who were expected to attend.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Peres as a “man of vision” and convened his Cabinet for a special meeting.

“As a man of security, he fortified Israel’s strength in many ways, some of which even today are still unknown,” he said. “As a man of peace, he worked until his final days toward reconciling with our neighbours for a better future for our children.”

* Agencies